“Back On The Chain Gang” — The Pretenders
In an inspired piece of radio programming, “Back On The Chain Gang” popped up as I jumped in my car for the long drive to work last Monday.
Although the song is nothing to do with work at all, I’m pretty sure most of us can relate to the idea of being “on the chain gang” when they get back to work after a weekend off.
I enjoy my job, in fairness, but even I thought it was a great song for 6.30 on a Monday morning.
“Back On The Chain Gang” isn’t about convicts building railroads somewhere in the Deep South…or breaking rocks to make road surfaces…or sewing mailbags…or anything like that. Although I’m glad to see the video director gave in to the temptation to weave together a few these fairly obvious themes, as you’ll see in a moment.
The only prison “Back On The Chain Gang” really talks about is the prison of your mind…although that is often a much darker place than the kind with physical bars on the windows and, for most people, much harder to escape from.
Chrissie Hynde wrote “Back On The Chain Gang” after one of her band members died suddenly and unexpectedly from a drug overdose. With the old showbiz motto of “the show must go on” ringing in her ears, no doubt, she kept recording and performing, but it must have been hard and I’m sure at times must have felt like being on forced labour of some sort.
Ironic then, perhaps, that “Back On The Chain Gang” became a big hit, reaching number five on the Billboard charts in the US and, whilst not quite as big a hit in the UK, still a Top 20 single and one of The Pretenders’ best-known songs.
Chrissie Hynde starts “Back On The Chain Gang” with an experience familiar to anyone who’s suffered a significant loss…a loved one who passed away…the love of your life leaving for someone else…a best friend from childhood you fell out with over something silly and never see any more…
In those circumstances, after a few days of tears perhaps, we steel ourselves and try to make it through as if nothing happened. Most of the time, we convince ourselves we’re doing just fine…close friends and family might not be quite so confident, but we get good at fooling ourselves after a while.
And then something happens. You’re in a place you used to go with them…doing something you used to do with them…you smell the perfume you associate with them…and you’ve lost it. Memories flood back and the heartbreak feels fresh, just like it did when you heard the news first time round.
Nothing prepares you for this and the strength of your feelings take you by surprise…after all you were doing so well, you tell yourself…
Chrissie Hynde describes the experience like this…
I found a picture of you
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We have been cast out of?
In that moment, her thoughts were captured and she was transported straight back to a time in the past she thought she was over. But, as is often the case, she wasn’t as over it as she’d thought…
Now, because Chrissie Hynde is a good songwriter she knows that whilst it’s fine to write songs inspired by deceased band-mates, however much you cared about them the record-buying public is fairly unlikely to buy too many copies of a maudlin epitaph.
So you can listen to “Back On The Chain Gang” and quite reasonably imagine it’s a song about two former lovers parting and the one who’s been left behind having to get on with her life anyway.
That’s the genius of good songwriting. You take inspiration from one experience and turn it into a commentary that appears to be about something else entirely. You get your message across using metaphors and telling stories to make your point. You don’t need to be too explicit with your message…and, in fact, it’s usually better if you’re not.
Chrissie Hynde brings us the gift of two metaphors in “Back On The Chain Gang”.
Firstly, she’s taken the passing of a band-mate and close friend and made it into a story about a love affair gone wrong.
Secondly she’s taken a “getting on with life without him” experience and alighted on the chain gang metaphor…the pressed labour…the indentured service…which symbolises the need to do something you almost certainly wish you didn’t have to do, whether that’s breaking rocks or getting on with life without a dear friend and close professional colleague.
In the case of convicts, you don’t have a choice…you just have to live our the sentence the court gave you.
In the case of a performer, it’s your professional duty to make sure the show goes on, whatever might have happened to you personally. The audience have paid good money to see you…the least you can do it give them the best show you know how.
The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they’ve done to you
But I’ll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They’ll fall to ruin one day
For making us part
The problem is, when you get an unexpected reminder of someone you’ve loved and lost, it brings both sadness and happiness to the fore. It’s a trick your mind plays, giving you both the yin and the yang at the same time.
At first all you feel is sadness, but over time you remember the good times more and more until you’re just left with fond memories of your old friend, lover or family member. Of course, you miss them, but the hurt isn’t so raw and your memories become happy ones of your time together.
I found a picture of you
Those were the happiest days of my life
Like a break in the battle was your part
In the wretched life of a lonely heart
Now we’re back on the train
We’re back on the chain gang
Life goes on. But it’s hard and, in Chrissie Hynde’s case, a difficult experience to write about without just telling everyone how sad you are.
Chrissie Hynde nails this complex mix of the near-simultaneous floods of positive and negative emotions whilst having to get on with life as best you can in “Back On The Chain Gang”. Here she is with The Pretenders to tell you all about it…
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/4cMHCRLPNoEbpnl2rz6GS9